JPMorgan Chase Whistleblower: 'Essentially Suicide' To Stand Up To Bank
When Linda Almonte alerted her boss at JPMorgan Chase about potential fraud in a major deal she was helping to close, she expected him to applaud her great catch.
Instead, he fired her.
"We went down fast," said Almonte, 41, about her family. She had been making $100,000 a year as a division vice president at Chase, enough to support her stay-at-home husband, their four kids, ages 12 to 22, and rent a three-bedroom house in San Antonio, Texas.
Her move at Chase amounted to "essentially suicide," Almonte told The Huffington Post. No bank in town would hire her after word spread that she had stood up to the banking giant, she said. After more than a year of fruitless job hunting, Almonte and her family left town, landing at a hotel near Disney World, paying $300 a week for a two-bedroom with a kitchenette.
Almonte enrolled her children in a federal program for homeless kids so that they wouldn't have to switch schools if the family had to leave the hotel. Her father joined them to help out and they survived on her father's $2,700 monthly combined Social Security and disability payments.
Her fate is far from unusual. "Employees get fired all the time for blowing the whistle," said Dana Gold, a senior fellow at the Government Accountability Project, a nonprofit organization that advocates for whistleblowers. "We see it so much," Gold said. "It's a predictable phenomenon."
To help compensate for such risks, 2010's Dodd-Frank financial regulatory law offers incentives to sweeten the pot for some whistleblowers. While Gold and other employee advocates applaud the new provisions, neither Almonte nor any of the hundreds of other whistleblowers who have filed complaints under the new program have received a payout for their information. Instead these informants, who have risked their careers, wait to learn whether they will receive millions in government awards or nothing.
Under Dodd-Frank, whistleblowers could potentially receive 10 percent to 30 percent of the fines and settlements exceeding $1 million collected by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the Commodity Futures Trading Commission. The bounty program is based on the Department of Justice's successful whistleblower program that offers payments to informants who expose fraud against the government under the False Claims Act. The Justice Department program has paid more than $3.4 billion to whistleblowers since 1987, according to the nonprofit Taxpayers Against Fraud.
The new Dodd-Frank program also grants whistleblowers more protection against retaliation by an angry employer -- informants have a longer period of time to report problematic employers, are eligible for reinstatement and back pay, and can bring a case against their former employers in a federal court.
While the new rules are precise, "it's the interpretation and implementation of the rules … that will take a while to play out," said Rebecca Katz, an attorney with Bernstein Liebhard LLP and a former senior enforcement lawyer for the SEC.
In a federal court in Houston, for example, General Electric is fighting, according to the Wall Street Journal, a case brought by a whistleblower who claims he was fired after raising concerns that the company violated the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act (the same law that Walmart is alleged to have violated in Mexico). GE argues that the whistleblower isn't eligible for any protections under the new rules because he did not contact the SEC about his concerns. The new law is not completely clear about the steps that a whistleblower must take to be eligible for a payout or government protection.
One advocate of the more robust Dodd-Frank protections is Sherron Watkins, the former Enron vice president credited with exposing fraud at her company only weeks before its epic collapse in 2001.
Watkins, who today makes a living speaking about corporate ethics and her Enron experience, said that she doesn't earn nearly as much as she would have if she had stayed working in the energy sector. But it would be "completely impossible" for her to return to that line of work after she spoke up about Enron's corruption, she claimed.
"You won't find someone that is labeled a 'whistleblower' who has been able to return to their original career," she said, adding that job opportunities in other, related fields also shrink considerably for such individuals. "Even though they might be capable of, say, being a college professor, you'll see that if they're allowed to do something normal like teach, it will still be below their expertise level, like teaching in middle school."
That has been Almonte's experience. Almonte had been working at Chase for only a few months when she was asked to pitch in on a deal to sell 23,000 credit card accounts from customers behind on their payments. Debt collection agencies buy the accounts for pennies and keep any money they can collect from the customers, as reported in a series by American Banker.
All the accounts had "judgments" on them, meaning that Chase had already taken these cases to court, sued the customers involved for failing to make payments and won the lawsuits. Before the sale took place, Almonte was asked to check the amount owed and the court's ruling in each case.
After reviewing more than a third of the files, Almonte's team reported back to her that nearly 60 percent contained some sort of major error, including discrepancies about the amount or whether the court had indeed ruled for the bank. Concerned, Almonte went up the chain of command, flagging the errors and encouraging management to halt the sale. Instead, the bank fired Almonte and completed the deal in December 2009. Chase declined to comment for this story, as did the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which is currently investigating the bank.
Almonte filed a whistleblower claim with the SEC in November 2010. The amount she could potentially be paid if she wins her claim is unknown, since it depends on whether the agency considers her information crucial to successfully bringing a case against Chase, and the size of any potential associated fines and settlement fees.
In recent years the size of penalties, fines and settlements paid by companies to the SEC has varied. Liquor conglomerate Diageo paid $16 million to settle charges of bribing government officials in Asia so as to increase sales of its Johnnie Walker and Windsor Scotch whiskeys. Citigroup paid the SEC $285 million to settle allegations that the firm defrauded investors by selling faulty mortgage-related products.
While waiting to hear if the SEC not only pursues a case against Chase but also wins it and whether she will receive a payout under the new program, Almonte says she's "starting to get [her life] back together now." She now works as a management consultant earning roughly 80 percent of her salary at Chase. She has relocated from the hotel to a rental home.
Nevertheless, she believes she will never regain her former career trajectory.
"You google me and my name is everywhere," she said. "Any company that would hire me will see that. I can never live that down."